It wasn’t until the health inspector started putting on a hazmat suit that it really hit me: This was not just another fecal contamination. Earlier that mid-August morning in 2008, we had gotten a call from the state health department that our pool was the focus of a cryptosporidium outbreak.
A quick but tense conference call with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided instructions on how to collect the samples to determine if the pool was contaminated with cryptosporidium. But now that the health inspector had his marching orders, it wasn’t as easy as it sounded. For his own safety, the
inspector requested a hazmat suit complete with gloves and facial protection. Though the hazmat suit made the inspector more comfortable, that wasn’t the case for the staff or the curious citizens on hand to watch him walk out. I remember having to calm one patron down when she saw what was happening.
The truth was, I needed calming down at this point, too. I kept asking myself, “How could this have happened?” The pool under investigation wasn’t just any pool; it was the premier facility for the city of Albuquerque, N.M. It had been voted the city’s best pool in 2008. The indoor 50-meter pool seated 1,000 and hosted dozens of meets throughout the year on multiple levels: high school, college, USA Swimming Masters, to name a few. In fact, we had just had a major competitive swimming meet that brought in thousands of competitors. The entire facility was a popular hangout for families, with 500,000 people visiting the three-pool venue every year.
I had my best-trained, top-notch staff working here. We did regular in-service training, had strict record-keeping and used the best water quality management systems available.
We took regular bather counts and spot-checked the water chemistry throughout the day. I thought we were doing everything right.
I thought I was doing everything right, too. After all, I had 17 years of aquatics experience. I was a certified lifeguard trainer and pool operator. I had published aquatics research. I was the aquatics chair of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, and on the board of the National Drowning Prevention Association. I held a Master’s in Sports Science and was working toward my PhD. I loved the water, had been swimming since I was 5 years old.
Yet this invisible pathogen, this parasite, was testing all my knowledge, challenging my skills, calling into question my authority as well as my standing as an aquatics professional. It was also costing me money in lost pool hours and refunds that the public had started demanding. Was it something we had done? Could it have been prevented? Who was to blame? How could we have failed?
I got no solace from the health officials. They were cooperating with us, and I was grateful for their assistance, but it still felt like they were breathing down our necks. They wanted information and records dating back nearly four months, including chemical logs, policies and procedures, lifeguard certifications, filter-room chemical inspections, and analysis of our reagents and testing kit. Basically, anything we had in writing, they wanted to see. And even that wasn’t good enough. Where were our bather counts in relation to water quality checks? Why wasn’t our information collected on one sheet? The implication was that we had done something wrong, or at least not right. I felt as if I were under the gun to get them what they needed. Time was the enemy now and every second was crucial.
By late afternoon, my immediate concern was the facility and my staff. We still had a long day in front of us. After the samples were collected, I called a meeting that was probably one of the most serious I’ve ever had. No one was smiling or laughing. They were worried about getting blamed, scared of being fired. They wanted to know how this happened and who was at fault. What happens now?
All I could do was tell them what I knew, and how we were going to move forward. Today, that meant hyperchlorinating (aka superchlorinating) the pool. Our protocols called for hyperchlorinating the bathrooms as well. But as an extra precaution because crypto is so insidious, the CDC and our health officials recommended that we hyperchlorinate the entire facility — bathrooms, locker rooms, decks, walls, bleachers. Every surface of the facility had to be sprayed down. We used a high-power pressure washer and I told my staff to pretend like they were painting. At one point the fumes got so bad, we all had to step outside for fresh air.
While my staff and I were disinfecting the facility, a press release had gone out to the media alerting them to our crypto connection and creating a whole new kind of infection. Sending out a press release is standard procedure. It’s the health department’s best way to get the word out and to limit the outbreak. But that release turned a positive crypto connection into a full-fledged health and public relations emergency.
It wasn’t just our facility or even our city that was being affected. Swimming pools ranging from the northern to the southern part of the state (over a 400-mile area) were closed for precautionary treatment.
In no time, information about confirmed cases spread like wildfire through the state, and later we discovered this outbreak reached national alert status. Several pools were involved, including a few out of state. Most of the affected pools were related to competitive swimming events, according to the investigation conducted by our environmental department.
It was difficult to point out the origin of the outbreak due to the number of activities conducted at various pools in different states. Because one of our pools was involved in this incident, we definitely wanted to take
action and take a proactive role.
But we were not prepared for the media attention this incident received. Some of our local media sources reported that our aquatics staff was responding to a chlorine-resistant parasite with a chlorine treatment. The way the information was presented only led to more concerns and confusion in the community, while other media outlets were becoming very critical of our aquatics staff.
Fortunately, city officials from Parks and Recreation and Environmental Health were able to hold interviews with the local media to clear up some of the misunderstandings and help give the public confidence in our water treatment. In one such interview, the media were taken through the swimming pool’s mechanical and chemical rooms while we discussed our treatment and sanitation methods.
After our initial closure and media coverage, public inquiries concerning crypto through phone calls, e-mails and visits were overwhelming for several weeks after the incident was reported. A great number of our patrons were angry and wanted refunds — even for events that were held more than four months earlier.
Other citizens were demanding the city pay their doctor bills and medication expenses because they went for checkups, even if they didn’t have an official lab test that confirmed crypto.
I felt we had lost the public’s trust.
But I was determined to win it back. We started by holding meetings with our various swim coaches and swim clubs to discuss ways for them to help prevent RWIs, and how to engage in much safer swimming habits. We updated protocols, record-keeping and best practices to better prepare for and prevent another crypto incident. We participated in an aquatics meeting at our local American Red Cross chapter to review our action plans for intervention in the event of future outbreaks. We strengthened communication between our pool managers throughout the Albuquerque metro area. We began a public information campaign to teach patrons what they need to do to help us keep crypto out of our pools for good.
Reflecting back at the challenges our community faced in August 2008, we believe that quick action and cooperation from federal, state, local and private industry professionals helped keep the crypto outbreak from growing.
As we get ready for a new year and a new season, I know we still have a lot of work left to do to earn back the public’s trust and patronage. But I’m confident the lessons we have learned from this crypto outbreak will make our facility, staff and city better prepared for the next time.
The most important thing my ordeal with crypto taught me is that you can try to prevent it from happening, but you need to be prepared for the worst.
Brandon Gibson contributed to this article.